I am the mother of a 10-year-old. Not big news, you might think. After all, I’ve been the mother of a 10-year-old before, two years ago. But the other day my younger child turned 10. I didn’t have much of a problem with it—a little pang, maybe—but, for the first time, she did.
When Child One was younger, he used to cry the night before each birthday and on the last day of school each year. He had had such a good time being four or five or in first or second grade, and he didn’t want it to end. Child Two, however, has always been a very adaptable kid, taking life as it comes along, happy to move from one year to the next, so her sadness at turning 10 came as a big surprise.
This school year has brought quite a few changes. She’s in fourth grade now, which, where we live, officially makes her an intermediate student rather than a primary. This means the start of homework and letter grades (her brother, who did his earlier years of school in a different system, has had homework since kindergarten and is disgusted that she’s gotten off scot-free all these years). But, while a bit stressful, these changes haven’t bothered her much. So why the sudden crisis?
She’s worried that her real childhood is over now that’s she hit double digits. She doesn’t want to be a preteen, and she’s certainly in no hurry to be a teenager, with all the changes that will bring. She’s seen how some of the kids in her brother’s grade have changed as they’ve gotten older—they’re so mean to each other and they care more about who’s going out with whom than anything else. She sees the beginnings of this in her own circle. She was betrayed by a friend for the first time a few months ago. The crushes are starting. She has always had close friends who happen to be boys and she’s not interested in those friendships turning into “that other stuff.”
She’s happy being just a kid and she wants to stay that way.
On her birthday, I got some hints about the kinds of things that are on her mind. First, her wish for the day was that there would be no arguments. This was brought on by the increased friction between her almost-teenaged brother and her dad (really, sometimes they remind of two head-butting goats). She knows that this is an inevitable part of growing up and becoming independent, and I think she’s worried that soon she’ll be head-butting too.
Second, after she had opened all her presents, she told me with obvious relief that she had been worried that one of them would be a bra. I assured her that (a) when the time comes, I won’t buy her a bra as a birthday gift and (b) if she’s anything like her mom, that time is not going to come for at least a couple of years. When I was younger, I was so flat that the cooks in the restaurant I worked in would tease me unmercifully whenever one of my customers ordered two eggs sunny-side up. I didn’t even qualify for a bra with a real cup size until I was a few months pregnant.
I dread the day that Child Two stops seeing her body as simply the part of her that allows her to sprint down a soccer field or leap across a dance stage, strong and capable, and starts seeing it as her enemy—too fat or too skinny, too short or too tall, not good enough. I wonder if she will go from being a confident, happy kid to someone full of doubts about herself.
People who knew me when I was a kid say that she’s the spitting image of the younger me. It’s true that there’s no mistaking us for anything other than mother and daughter. But while we share many traits—physical and otherwise—until now Child Two has differed from that younger me in one important respect. She’s always had a realistic picture of herself: not perfect, no better than anyone else as a person, but capable of a lot of things. She’s seen herself as a whole person and she’s defined herself on her own terms, based on the things she can do. She’s an artist, dancer, athlete, musician, student, animal lover, reader. I, on the other hand, usually felt that I was a fake, a façade with not much behind it. I defined myself in terms of how others saw me and what I could not do.
I’m starting to see some cracks in her confidence. More and more often I hear her say things like “I’m not a good artist anymore” or “I’ll never be able to whistle” or “I don’t think I can do that.”
Now that she’s been 10 for almost a week and hasn’t suddenly turned into a bra-wearing, boy-loving, argumentative preteen, she’s relaxed a bit. But I’m much more sensitive now to her fragility. I want her to be happy being just a kid for as long as possible.